Two Things I Love About Piranesi

Entry for the 7th day of the 10th month in the year everything was relentlessly awful

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is an extraordinary, spectacular, wonderful book. Even among the books I’ve loved, it’s rare for me to find one that makes me feel transformed and transported as I’m reading it, in the distracting, mind-absorbing way that only literature can.

One of those was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Clarke’s gigantic, exhaustive history of magical England. I read it years ago, while I was spending a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms, and its ability to completely absorb me and surround me in the world she’d created was a blessing of escape from anxiety. I can’t say how much of my love for that book is due to the time in which I read it, but I do know that it wasn’t just “escapism” in the sense of avoiding reality. It was being transported to another place and then returned to reality a little wiser and more perceptive than I’d been before. It’s fitting to be delivered another magical book exactly when I’m most desperately in need of escape.

One of the reasons I started writing “One Thing I Like” was, well, to keep me from rambling on too long about whatever movie or videogame or book I’d just experienced. But mainly, it was to avoid my tendency to be reductive. To stop treating art like an assignment: watch or read or play the work, analyze the narrative (if any), put it in context, pull out the “message” or the one thing that it means. To instead, talk around the experience I had with a work of art or entertainment, drawing out one aspect I particularly like to suggest why it impacted me the way it did.

I especially don’t want to be reductive with Piranesi, because the process of reading it is the source of magic in it. Although the book had a lot of pre-release buzz, apparently, I knew nothing about it other than it was the first book from Clarke in over a decade. (And that it’s surprisingly brief, especially when compared to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). I only read enough of the synopsis to know that it involves a grand house with infinite rooms. I don’t consider it a plot-driven book; its wonder doesn’t depend entirely on its narrative surprises. But I do believe that that ignorance of what I was getting into was a huge part of the wonder of the book: that sense of intrigue and discovery that fills the first half.

Or in other words: I highly recommend it, and I strongly recommend going in cold.

I feel a little like the book was delivered as a Max Headroom-style blipvert directly into my brain, and my subconscious is still unpacking it. There are tons of things I love about it, with more revealing themselves the more I think about it, but right now two are fighting for dominance.

The first thing I love about Piranesi

First: I love the way that Clarke writes villains. Specifically, she writes villains as if they were merely antagonists.

Comparisons between Piranesi and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are inevitable, so I’m just going to lean into them. Both books are most easily categorized as “magical realism,” largely because they both focus on scientists diligently observing and documenting worlds that are too fantastic to be explained by science. One of the wonderful aspects of Jonathan Strange is how well it captures the tone of arrogant optimism of the 19th century, when there was no doubt that with enough observation, experimentation, documentation, and innovation, the unknowable could become knowable.

The protagonist of Piranesi also describes himself as a scientist, but it’s also immediately apparent that he has an unshakeable faith — he exhaustively studies and documents the wonders of the house not to render it knowable, but to affirm and appreciate all the gifts that the house has given him.

But even more than all of the detailed footnotes and methodical journal entries, the two stories more subtly enforce a realistic tone by presenting their villains as casual, conversational, and more carelessly antagonistic than you might expect from fantasies about magical realms. They don’t indulge in grand monologues, nor in moments of sympathetic introspection. Unlike what most of us expect from fantasy stories, it’s never really presented as a grand battle between equally powerful rivals, each with their own motivations, the fate of reality locked in the balance. The villains are banal, capricious, and needlessly cruel.

There’s been a trend in art and entertainment for a while now, where stories are told from the villains’ perspective. The first I became aware of it was Grendel by John Gardner, although I’m sure it must be much older than that. Wicked is the most obvious example from (fairly) recent pop culture. I believe it’s an offshoot of an earnest attempt to make villains more three-dimensional, with their own motivations and their own justifications, instead of merely obstacles for the heroes to overcome. There’s an idea that’s been repeated so often that it’s become accepted as a rule for actors and writers: good villains don’t see themselves as the villain.

Piranesi rejects this. But instead of making its villains seem shallow or artificial, it makes them all the more menacing. And, I would say, more realistic. At least in my own experience, the people who’ve had the most negative impact on my “story” have almost never been the ones targeting me, but the ones who don’t really give a shit about me one way or the other. More than realism, though, it delivers what I think is a longer-lasting and more transformative catharsis. The heroes’ victories aren’t defined in terms of the villain. They win by being brave, compassionate, and kind.

In these stories, evil isn’t the opposite of good, it’s the absence of good. Their heroes devote much of their passion to explaining the inexplicable, knowing the unknowable, but they will never be able to truly understand evil. They lack the capacity for true selfishness and callous carelessness.

The second thing I love about Piranesi

Second: Piranesi is a wonderfully vivid, extended example of metatext, or how the format of the book conveys a core idea of the book.

I have to admit that while I was reading, I was enjoying the book so much that I reflexively started looking for something to criticize. The flaw that my initial enthusiasm must’ve caused me to overlook, or even the one imperfection that made it perfect. I can’t just ramble on effusively about something without having any criticism of it, right?

I found my criticism at around the halfway point, as the story’s mysteries started to be explained. I could fairly easily guess what the clues were leading to, I could make connections the protagonist wasn’t making, I had a very strong feeling I knew what the backstory was going to turn out to be, even if I didn’t know the specific details yet.

(2.5 thing I love about Piranesi: the protagonist typically discovered things or made conclusions about things no more than one page after I’d figured them out. Any time I started second-guessing the novel, it reminded me that everything was under control, and everything was coming together right on schedule. Such a refreshing change to read something that respects the reader’s intelligence, instead of dragging out “intrigue” for chapters while the reader’s shouting “Yes, I get it!”)

So my one major criticism was that after so many chapters of gloriously intriguing expansion, the story starts to rapidly contract as it gets closer to the ending. Mysteries are explained, MacGuffins are found, plot threads are drawn together, loose ends are tied up. It seemed as if this wondrous book used up all its supply of wonder at the beginning. Instead of building up momentum towards a spectacular climax, it seemed to be politely cleaning up after itself.

To be clear: the plot of the book does come to a spectacular climax, but it was also, literally, predictable. (The protagonist predicts it). For a story that had derived so much energy from exploring the inexplicable, everything seemed to have a clear and immediately apparent explanation.

After reading the last chapter, though, I believe that feeling of expansion and contraction is essential to the tremendous impact the book had on me. Throughout the final chapter, there’s a powerful sense of melancholy. The narration is matter-of-fact, even numb. A loss that seems irreplaceable and inevitable. The protagonist had grown to love his prison, and we realize that we had grown to love it as well, because of its seemingly infinite potential energy. Escape is unquestionably preferable to solitude, especially after we’ve been reminded that people are capable of such unselfish kindness and compassion. But it also means abandoning wonder, mystery, and peaceful simplicity.

Piranesi contains a brief reference to Narnia, and when I encountered it, I thought it was just a clever, self-aware touch that confirmed there was a connection between the world of Piranesi’s house and our own world. But when I reached the end of the book, I was overcome with a feeling that was entirely too familiar: it was exactly how I felt as a kid, reading Aslan telling Susan and Peter that they were being banished from Narnia, essentially punished for growing up. It seemed so cruel and sad and unfair and inevitable and natural. I realized that Piranesi was a 245-page prose poem perfectly expressing that feeling. It took me, a 49-year-old, back to the Narnia I remembered from when I was 13. And it left me with a reminder that I could always come back any time I wanted, and while it would never be the same, I now at least had a deeper and more mature understanding of why I couldn’t stay.

Ten Little Influencers

Thoughts about The Guest List by Lucy Foley, my constantly-changing opinions about snobbery, and the value of, well, trash

I’ve been having really bad insomnia for a couple of weeks. I’ve wanted to find something like a good old-fashioned murder mystery to read before bed. I decided to try The Guest List by Lucy Foley, based on comparisons to Agatha Christie, in particular Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None. I read the first thirty or so pages in one night, and I fell asleep eager to see how the rest of the story played out. The next night, I finished the entire rest of the book.

So now I’m torn. I’ve always been frustrated by how slowly I read, so I rarely get into books and don’t read all that much. I can’t even remember the last time I got engrossed enough in a book to finish it in one night. This one is a page-turner in the purest and most cliched sense: short chapters jumping back and forth in time, a number of intriguing omissions from each character’s story, a cliffhanger at the end of every few pages.

At the same time, I’ve got to admit that it was all pretty silly and predictable. I’d figured out who the murderer was at just after the halfway mark, even before we were explicitly told who the murder victim was. The references to popular technology and snobs-vs-slobs class divides seem just shy of authentic, as if the book is laser-targeted at a very specific type of thirty-something who’s just familiar enough with online pop culture to be aware that they’re not familiar enough with it to be cool. And the most shocking thing in the book was the absurd lengths it went to in order to tie all its characters’ tragic backstories together. I realize that’s a trope of murder mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None in particular, but when you have a book that’s told almost entirely in the first person, it stretches credulity too far.

For years, I’ve been insisting that the division between high art and low art is a pretentious, snobby, and unnecessary one. Being well-crafted and engaging has merit in and of itself. In the visual arts and film, we can recognize the value of something that is beautifully made but doesn’t aspire to be “high art,” so why shouldn’t that apply to everything else. There should be no such thing as a “guilty pleasure.”

The Guest List is making me rethink that.

Or more accurately: it’s making me rethink whether I actually care. For years I’ve been trying to make a case that there’s not a meaningful distinction between “high art” and “low art.” Instead, I should’ve realized long ago that the people who insist on making the distinction are people whose opinions I don’t particularly care about. And the people who’d actually be affected by the distinction — creators and fans — don’t actually care.

Lucy Foley’s brief bio says that she worked in the publishing entry, so that, plus the fact that The Guest List is a best-seller that’s made it to the top of several recommendation lists, including the one that made me find out about it, all make me suspect that she knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish with the book, and she accomplished it several times over. I’m kind of skeptical she considers a discussion of “literary merit” at all relevant.

I think more than anything else, the fact that I consider it so bizarre and alien to read a book for pleasure is a sign that I simply don’t read enough. And also, my own biases about genre. I’ve read two Star Wars novels this year — okay, one and a half before I gave up on it — so presumably, I understand how genre fiction works. I suppose I’ve just always had a shallow assumption that books involving lasers and/or elves are exempt from literary requirements. I’d never considered mysteries or thrillers set in “the real world” to be “genre fiction,” even though they’re every bit as much.

The truth is that the whole question of high art vs low art, genre fiction vs literature, graphic novels vs comic books, TV vs film, movies vs cinema, etc, stopped being at all relevant over a decade ago. The lines have blurred, the gatekeepers have been made obsolete, and good riddance to all of it. The only times it reasserts itself nowadays is when a snob pipes up with an opinion that can be ginned up into a controversy: “oh no, that guy said the MCU movies aren’t ‘cinema!’ Let’s write 10,000 essays and blog posts about it!”

And, of course, it reasserts itself when after years being told about the transformative power of challenging literature, I reflexively get defensive when I realize I’ve just enjoyed reading or watching something that was strictly entertaining instead of insightful. I mean, I’ll spend hours sitting in front of YouTube watching strangers recording themselves going to a theme park, but God forbid I read a book that’s not “challenging” enough. I suppose I spent too many years in school having it stressed that I should be Reading At Or Above My Grade Level, that I never quite got over it. And considering that I’m pushing 50 and I’m still voluntarily writing book reports, that seems to be the most likely explanation.

To be clear, I’m not trying to defend blatantly commercial or derivative works. But then, I don’t think anybody’s asking me to. Of the two Star Wars books I mentioned, one was essentially an advertisement for the last movie, while the other was essentially an advertisement for a theme park expansion. Still, one felt so uninspired that it might as well have just been ad copy, while the other felt like someone genuinely wanting to share a story. It ended up being fun and engaging and a perfectly fine use of my time, no matter whether someone else thinks it’s “trash.”

Paper Exhalation

A double book report for two tangentially-related books: Paper by Mark Kurlansky, and Exhalation by Ted Chiang

I was a big fan of Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt, so I’ve been looking forward to his more recent book Paper, the second in his series of biographies of a mid-80s hip-hop girl group whose name he mis-heard.

Inexcusably contrived dad jokes aside, Paper uses roughly the same structure as Salt did: trace our use of a seemingly mundane but ubiquitous and essential thing throughout history, to present a popular survey of world history to a wide audience. I think Salt worked much better, possibly because it seems like an even more boring topic than what is essentially the history of written communication and record-keeping.

The tangents into corresponding inventions, and the bits of detailed information about a person that are usually overlooked in a more “serious” survey of history, are what make Kurlansky’s work interesting, and there simply seemed to be fewer available here. There wasn’t a whole lot that was surprising. For instance: before reading Salt, I’d never realized that so many towns in England ended with “wich” because they were originally locations of salt mines. Similarly, Paper explains how the elements required for paper mills — abundant water, water as a source of power, available rags or pulp for fiber — determined which parts of the world could be good sources of paper production. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t so easily distill down into the Mental Floss-style quick-fun-fact-to-share format.

I don’t feel like I learned the actual process of making paper in a way that made sense to me, even though much of the book is devoted to almost describing the process in detail. I know that it involves vats of water, and beating rags into pulp, and screens and fibers that somehow end up forming a film that is pressed and dried. But that’s just what I’ve been able to glean over hundreds of pages, and it’s honestly not more or less detailed than what I already knew about the process. I don’t recall at any point the book giving a satisfying explanation of the procedure from start to finish, so chapters and chapters of subsequent innovations and modifications to the process were lost on me, because I didn’t have enough context to understand why they were significant.

It’s also frustratingly centered on Europe, which has been my main annoyance with attempts to learn more about history since high school. The book acknowledges that paper was invented in China, and that most of the technological innovations that brought Europe out of the “Dark Ages” were either borrowed from or independently invented in Asia and the Middle East, so it’s not that the book is chauvinistic or misleading. But still, it abandons an entire hemisphere while it talks about how paper and printing spread through Europe and the New World, only going back to East Asia at the end to talk about Japanese paper craft and Chinese recycling.

So comparing the two Kurlansky books I’ve read at this point, I’d say that Salt was surprisingly interesting and entertaining, while Paper was pretty much exactly what it says on the cover.

One of the recurring points that Kurlansky emphasizes in Paper is that he doesn’t believe societies are fundamentally changed by technology, but rather that they inevitably develop the technology they most need to accommodate the ways that their societies are already changing. For instance, paper didn’t create bureaucracies; China needed a bureaucracy at that point in its development, and paper was the invention that made it possible. It helped explain how my reading a book about the history of Paper on an iPad wasn’t as much of a cognitive dissonance as I would’ve thought at first.

It also dovetailed eerily well with the next book I read, Exhalation by Ted Chiang. One of the common threads through the stories is that they take the premise of a radically new invention or discovery, and then speculate about the societal and personal changes that might result. One of the stories takes the idea of technologically-assisted perfect memories and compares it to European colonists introducing paper record-keeping to an African society with a long oral tradition.

Chiang’s stories create worlds that are either alternate universes, or extrapolations of our own universe after an inherently disruptive innovation or event. That would make them seem inherently incompatible with the idea that technological development is a long, ongoing process instead of the sudden, completely unprecedented, culture-shifting inventions that inventors and marketing firms often want us to believe. Several of the stories are based on familiar technology — AIs and digital pets, AR glasses, using our phones as digital recorders and “augmented memory” devices, quantum computers and a gradually growing popular awareness of the concepts behind quantum states — but I don’t think Chiang is taking the role of a futurist. Instead, he’s taking a fairly extreme interpretation and using it to explore the implications at a personal level, not a societal one.

Ultimately, the two books played surprisingly well off each other when read back-to-back. They have a similarly optimistic and humanist take on “disruptive” technology. They suggest that people are above all else adaptable, and the things that make us human are never completely changed by any technology. Paper, e-books, cell phones, sentient virtual pets, time portals, and alternate-reality communication machines may make our lives different, but not necessarily better or worse.

An invention that uses a negative time-delay circuit to flash a light before you push a button, however, would ruin absolutely everything.

That’s the larger through-line between the stories in Exhalation: fate vs free will, knowing vs not knowing, and how our choices are what define us as human beings. That’s a very reductive take on it, of course, which is especially a drag in this case, because it’s impressive how he can have so many stories exploring facets of similar concepts without them all feeling simplistic or repetitive. Similar to Stories of Your Life and Others, he’s able to take ideas rooted in “hard” science fiction or speculative fiction, form them into a premise that is rigorously and technically defined from the start, and then use all the implications from that premise to tell an often intensely personal story about our experience as humans.

And as a petty human, I should probably say that I didn’t enjoy Exhalation nearly as much as I did Stories of Your Life and Others, but I felt so much better after reading it. After I read the latter book, I felt drained, and inexplicably envious. For years I’ve heard people complain about Instagram causing them depression or wrecking their self-esteem; seeing beautiful and/or rich people living perfectly ordered and presented lives makes them feel inferior. And I’ve been sympathetic but never fully understood it, probably because I’ve never aspired to being rich or fashionable. But I finally understood it after reading Chiang’s first short story collection, in which he seemed to talk about theology, theoretical physics, and parenting all with complete understanding; could understand the full implications of a technological disruption while I was still trying to wrap my ahead around the initial premise; and balance his rigorously scientific hypotheses with deeply-felt emotional conclusions.

Exhalation, on the other hand, reads like a book written by an actual human being. The first story is wonderful, from concept to presentation, a story about fate and time travel that ingeniously borrows the One Thousand and One Nights conceit. And I don’t want to spoil anything, but I found the very end of the last story surprisingly poignant and beautiful, a perfect ending to the collection. But the rest seemed to vary from fine but straightforward, to overlong and somewhat tedious. There was nothing that left me confused or intimidated, but also nothing that left me particularly inspired.

Like I said, that’s a fairly petty and ego-driven take on the collection, but I think it’s a testament to Chiang’s talent that his writing can generate that kind of reaction. Ultimately it’s a pleasure to be able to read such a compassionate, empathetic, and hopeful work from a writer who’s that intelligent. And it pairs surprisingly well with Paper, another book about how humanity responds to the inventions and discoveries that we make.

One Thing I Love About Hamilton

We’ve been hearing such effusive praise about Hamilton for so long that I’m not surprised by how much I enjoyed it. But I am surprised that the ending had me ugly-crying.

The title photo is of the Great Gasp ride visible over the entrance to Six Flags Over Georgia.

For years, I’ve been hearing about how Hamilton is a masterpiece of musical theater. I’ve never had the patience or money to get tickets for a live performance, so I’ve just had to listen to the soundtrack and take everybody else’s word for it. I thought the music was good but nothing exceptional enough to warrant such universal praise, so I figured that there must be something spectacular in the live production — maybe Hamilton dodges a falling chandelier like Phantom of the Opera, or the founding fathers form a roller-skating train like Starlight Express.

Like much of the rest of the country, I finally got to see the filmed version on Disney+, and I think now I finally understand what all the fuss is about. In my opinion, the brilliance of the show isn’t dependent on any big moment of spectacle — to be honest, I had it running in the background and was only halfway paying attention as I was doing something else, so I completely missed the time-rewinding during Angelica Schuyler’s song, and I only heard afterwards that it was one of the most breathtaking moments of the play. And even only giving it half my attention, I still loved it, so I’m expecting to love it even more when I finally get to watch it without distraction.

The brilliance of the show is that it’s two and a half hours showcasing one standout performance after another, and it’s all a celebration of intelligence, wit, diversity, integrity, ambition, and the American ideal. It’s hard to describe how nice it was on July 3, 2020 to be seeing a bunch of phenomenally talented people all getting together to celebrate intelligence and integrity and diversity. Even if it was a relic of the Obama administration.

Part of the reason it feels so relentlessly intelligent is because it’s packed with meaning — on top of all the wordplay itself, there are layers upon layers of things that the play is saying implicitly. One of the unexpected advantages to first seeing after everyone else in the world has spent five years obsessing over it: the internet is full of interpretations and lists and even — ugh — “explainers” pointing out details that a first-time viewer probably missed. The speed at which characters rhyme indicates their mental state or their self-confidence, and even the way that they move across the stage suggests their character. It’s daunting to think that not only does the play have more words than most in sheer number, but that every single one feels meticulously planned and placed.

And even the casual viewer can pick up on the most obvious things that the play says implicitly rather than explicitly. The casting itself is brilliant. It’s relatively easy to see why a Puerto Rican from New York City would choose to empathize with and emphasize Hamilton’s immigrant status. It’s significant to cast a black man as Thomas Jefferson. It’s significant to cast women of different races as the Schuyler sisters. It’s significant to show how women’s roles were prominent in Hamilton’s story, especially since our most popular stories about the founding of the USA usually act like women didn’t even exist apart from Betsy Ross, or an occasional nod to Dolly Madison.

I admit that when I first heard about the play, I thought that the casting was a good move, but effectively little more than a stunt, like gender-swapping roles in a well-known story, or setting Shakespeare in a different time period. But after seeing Hamilton, I realize I was completely wrong. It’s not the fiction of theater to show a diverse group of people active in the formation of the country; the fiction has been the centuries-long lie telling us that only white men were making a difference. I already knew that lines like “Immigrants, we get the job done” got applause in the play, but I feel like the stronger statement is made as soon as the actors walk on stage. It asserts that the history of America belongs to every American on that stage. Not just the white men who’ve traditionally dominated the story.

(If I were ever to write a “One Thing I Love About All Narrative Art,” it would be when an artist is able to use the format of the storytelling to deliver more of the story than is told explicitly. When changes in voice or pacing suggest greater narrative changes, or when assumptions made by the audience are subverted to make them nervous or uneasy. I love that stuff, and it gets my highest respect when I find it in any work, from Psycho to The Hunger Games novel).

So I love all those aspects of the play, but that’s not the “one thing” I’m focusing on here. All of the wit, and intelligence, and knowledge of the history of the nation and the history of theater, and multiple layers of meaning, would all make for a great thesis and likely a very entertaining play. What pushed Hamilton from “excellent” to “sublime” for me is the ending. I’d already been weepy for most of the last act of the play, with its concentration on death and the legacy we leave to others, but the last moment had me ugly-crying. It took me completely by surprise.

I didn’t expect to be surprised by Hamilton, any more than I was surprised by Titanic. Even people like me, who can never remember history classes, can remember the “Got Milk?” commercial. And even if you don’t have that context, Aaron Burr gives away the ending in the opening number, and the play foreshadows the duel twice. The final songs do recount what’s known about the characters from the historical record, but they’re not about that so much as about the play itself, and the reason it exists. (Which is why criticizing the play for historical “inaccuracies” misses the point entirely). It is explicitly about stories, how they’re told, and why they’re told. Stories about the “founding fathers” are deliberately made semi-mythical and removed from everyday life, to encourage patriotism and loyalty to the Constitution: the battles fought and the words written by these brave and god-like men must never be sullied or diminished by your shallow, modern concerns.

But Hamilton is encouraging a different kind of patriotism. It humanizes these historical figures, not for their benefit, but for ours. It says that these stories are our stories; they belong to every one of us as Americans. A lot of mostly white people have spent many, many years trying to spin history to suggest that a decidedly anti-monarchist revolution brought about its own type of monarchy. Through battles or writing, they earned a kind of divine right, and were gracious enough to allow everyone else — women and people of color, purely coincidentally — to enjoy the bounty of the country that they created. Hamilton asserts that these people aren’t so different from any of us, and we have the right — and responsibility — to choose our own fate just as much as they do.

And again, that would’ve made for a perfectly moving and satisfying ending to the musical, earning the kind of blurb that Disney+ uses (and which I genuinely love), “the story of America then, told by America now.” But then Eliza, who’s outlived everyone by decades, and who’s told all of their stories, and who’s made so many contributions of her own, finally reaches the end of her story, and her very last moment is to look to heaven, and gasp.

I’ve heard from family members about what they saw or heard during their loved ones’ final moments. I’ll never forget it; it brought a kind of hope and comfort and wonder to something that could otherwise be fearful or sad. The moment in Hamilton is ambiguous, but I read it as rapture — a person unprepared to suddenly be met with so much indescribable beauty. Again: cue the ugly crying.

I found out from a Wired interview with the cast, of all places, that the gasp is not even in the original play. That stunned me, because it seemed the key to the final act if not the entire play. The end of the play is largely about death, loss, grief, and running out of time. They’re ideas well-communicated, but also communicated in a surprisingly traditional way, for a musical that fearlessly combines so many different musical styles and clever wordplay. The song “Quiet Uptown” repeats “have pity” on the characters who are going through “unimaginable” grief, which are both distancing. They suggest sympathy instead of empathy.

But that final gasp shows shocking empathy. It’s humanizing to show that the figures credited with founding America all had their own failings and their own personal tragedies. But while we may not ever fight in a war, or get in a duel, or be betrayed, or lose a child, there’s one thing that every single one of us will go through; the ultimate thing that makes all of us human. After seeing the other characters spending their lives obsessing over their legacy and their places in history, Eliza’s final song transcends all of that. Her proudest achievement isn’t her “place in the narrative,” or a monument, but her work to help people. It has little to do with “history,” and everything to do with how we live in the present. What’s great about that moment is that you can interpret it however you want. My interpretation is that she’s rewarded, not for her role in Alexander Hamilton’s story, but for her own life well-lived.

Museum of the Weird

Reading Rolly Crump’s book convinced me I’ve been wrong about Disney’s tension between originality and familiarity.

I just finished reading It’s Kind of a Cute Story, a memoir from Rolly Crump about his career as an Imagineer and afterwards. Even though I’ve been trying to follow the history of the Disney parks and their creators for years, there were quite a few things I hadn’t known before. One was that Crump was straight-up jacked. More significantly, though, I learned about an aspect of working for Walt Disney the man that’s gotten lost among the decades and the huge volume of work generated by Disney the company: Disney the company has gotten a reputation for safe, predictable, homogeneity; but Walt Disney himself was often a champion of the original and the weird.

In retrospect, this should’ve been obvious to somebody with even a cursory knowledge of Walt Disney’s career. But all my experience with the parks, cartoons, and TV series happened after his death. And according to every account of the company’s history that I’ve seen, including a mention in Rolly Crump’s book and an episode of The Imagineering Story, the period after Walt’s death was filled with timidity and aversion to any risk. Ironically, by making “What Would Walt Do?” the question that drove every decision, they ended up doing the opposite of what Walt would probably have done.

Still, that shaped my perception of Walt Disney as a conservative above all else. It cemented the idea that everything had to be on model, everything had to fit into an easily recognizable “Disney Look,” and it all had to be accessible and easily digestible: the most cynical interpretation would be that he hired some of the finest artists in the world to create art for the lowest common denominator.

And what’s remarkable is how I kept that simplistic and condescending impression despite tons of evidence to the contrary. It’s weird that he had a friendship and collaboration with Salvador Dali. It’s weird to make an animated film that’s nothing but artistic (and sometimes abstract) interpretations of orchestral pieces. It’s weird to build a successor to a hugely successful theme park and decide to focus not on the theme park, but on an elaborate planned city. Long stretches of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros are just weird. There are plenty of other examples, but I somehow ignored them and continued to think of Walt Disney as the genius at safe, family entertainment who occasionally had an aberrant weird idea.

So it was interesting to read Rolly Crump’s book and see him give Walt so much credit for some of his own best and most memorable work with Disney. Crump is one of the rare Imagineers who’s managed to have his own style and influence stand out as recognizable, since it’s only recently that the company has begun giving more credit to individual artists and engineers. Pretty much everything he had a hand in designing is part of my favorite Disney attractions — the clock outside Disneyland’s it’s a small world, the Haunted Mansion, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and The Land pavilion at Epcot. According to Crump’s own account, he was encouraged by Walt and chosen to bring his unique style to projects, despite not being the studio’s most traditionally skilled artist.

It seems so odd compared to the popular (and likely over-simplified) perception of how creative businesses work today. The stereotype is of the artist with a unique vision who somehow manages to make something new despite the people in charge, never because of them. To use an example from Disney animation: I’d always thought of Sleeping Beauty as a case of Eyvind Earle’s wonderful art and design work being constrained to fit into yet another princess movie, with mostly traditional Disney character design, right down to the prince who’s all but indistinguishable from the ones in Cinderella and Snow White.

But after hearing Rolly Crump’s description of how Walt Disney would think about projects, I think I may have had it completely reversed. Walt wanted to make use of the outstanding artwork of Eyvind Earle (and Marc Davis, and a ton of other legendary artists), and he recognized that a commercial, family-oriented production was the best way to make that financially possible. I’m so used to hearing about the tension between art and commerce as the broadest, most simplistic dichotomy — it’s even baked into the Disney “mythology” that insists that Walt was the creative one while Roy was the money guy. But that makes it sound as if Walt was perpetually in “Blue Sky mode,” which I suspect does a disservice to the actual extent of his genius. Walt wasn’t interested in taking weird and original stuff and sanitizing it, sanding off all the rough edges to make it something safe and homogenous; he recognized that safe, homogenous, and predictable sold really, really well to a global audience. Making Sleeping Beauty meant that the entire world would get to see Earle’s beautiful work. Building a corporate-sponsored pavilion at the World’s Fair meant that millions of people would get to see Rolly Crump’s kinetic sculpture.

I realize that that’s probably just as over-simplified take as the opposite, and that there was likely as much commerce as art involved in every decision. But as a lifelong Disney fan who’s still well aware that “the Disney version” almost always has a negative connotation, I like reminding myself that originality and weirdness are an essential part of the company’s creative history, and not just one-off exceptions. And I like seeing more of that looser, freer originality making it out to the public. There’s more experimentation with art styles and character designs — the current Mickey Mouse shorts are brilliant, and I love that their place has been cemented in Disney history with a dark ride in that style. The new look of Duck Tales, weird and off-model concept art from the Toy Story movies, the varied and experimental art and animation styles in the shorts (and even occasionally the features, like Wreck-it Ralph), are all signs that creativity, originality, and weirdness can be profitable.

Do or do not; there is #nohomo

More spaceships and laser swords, less snogging.

Whenever Star Wars comes into contact with the internet, dumb things happen. One of the most annoyingly dumb things recently has been the insistence that the new sequel trilogy is a perfect stage for better LGBTQ representation, but Disney overlords have kept it from happening.

The kiss between two women at the end of Rise of Skywalker is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it example of tokenism, they claim, kept short so it could pander to liberals but still be easily cut for less gay-friendly foreign markets. And of course the characters of Finn and Poe were obviously well-suited to be a couple, until skittish Disney execs insisted that they each be paired off with hetero romantic interests.

As a red-blooded American white male gay nerd, I’m calling that a bunch of nonsense.

Of course I’d prefer it if a company as large as Disney would choose to stand its ground. Release the movie with its completely innocuous kiss between two women, and let the market decide. (Retaining the arbitrary and unearned kiss between the trilogy’s hero and villain is a lot more offensive, anyway). But then they’d get accused of cultural insensitivity, so I guess there’s not one easy solution. At least the Huckabee family has to see it and get angry about it, so that makes me happy to think about.

But as for making it a more significant beat in the story, my question would be: why? What do you hope to get out of it? These aren’t stories that do a great job with romance in any case; the most successful one in the entire series is still insufferably corny in places. If it’s just a question of representation — which is absolutely important — then I think showing two secondary characters kiss during a happy moment is a great way to handle it.

When I was growing up watching these movies, I would’ve been happy to see any acknowledgement that other gay people exist, and that they don’t need to be primarily defined by or driven by their sexuality. In a series that doesn’t tend to focus on the personal lives of any of its secondary characters, devoting more time to those characters’ relationship would inevitably feel shoehorned.

The one that I feel a lot more strongly about is the business about Finn and Poe. With that, I can’t be as sympathetic to the call for representation, because I think it’s actually a huge and disappointing step backwards. In modern American entertainment, it’s getting increasingly common to see representation of two men in a romantic relationship. What’s still disappointingly rare, though, is to see two men in a supportive, affectionate relationship that isn’t romantic or sexual.

I’m sure that the people pushing for a Finn & Poe romance (including Oscar Isaac himself) believe they’re pushing for open-mindedness, but I think it just reinforces the kind of toxic masculinity we’re already overwhelmed with. It sets a limit on how much two men can show they care about each other before it turns gay. They hug, they’re concerned about each other, they even share clothes — now let’s see them kiss!

Believe me, nobody wants to see Oscar Isaac kissing another dude more than I do, but I think the better and more valuable representation — which could impact more of the audience than just the people who identify as gay — is to show men being caring and supportive of each other without having to be romantically linked. If for no other reason than it reminds all the guys in the audience who don’t identify as gay or bisexual that being affectionate isn’t a threat to their sexuality or their masculinity.

Now, the obvious issue with The Rise of Skywalker in particular is that they introduced Zorii Bliss as a character whose presence in the movie is at least 75% to give Poe Dameron somebody to mack on. I think they handled it well for the most part, seeing as how she’s portrayed as a bad-ass who’s able to show she cares about someone while still not being just a sexual object. And it gave the movie one of its best moments, when Poe turns on the full smolder, and she shoots him down immediately. But there’s no denying that it’s hella heteronormative.

Since that whole character relationship was already loaded down with the kind of corny, when-do-I-get-that-kiss “romance” that already exists in Star Wars, I say the “best” LGBTQ representation would have been to have Zorii Bliss open the helmet and reveal another man. (Like, say, me. I’ll do it. Just call me). It would’ve felt every bit as shoehorned in, but it would’ve at least been somewhat novel.

But let background characters stay in the background, and let Finn and Poe just be friends. It’s not progress to push for gay characters at the expense of telling men that they can’t be straight and give another guy a hug.

The Rise of Skywalker: The Last Gatekeeper

It’s partly true. Some of it.

This post is full of spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker.

While I was psyching myself up for seeing The Rise of Skywalker, I said I was bracing myself for either the rush of The Force Awakens or the disappointment of The Last Jedi. As it turns out, I didn’t really feel either.

I definitely felt none of the exhilaration of the first movie. The Force Awakens felt like the gasp of new life after someone plunged a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the franchise — (Note: I don’t know if that is actually a thing outside of Pulp Fiction. Please consult your doctor) — but this story was full of bad decisions that they couldn’t just lightspeed-skip over (like, say, an over-long discussion of thermal oscillators or a weird repetition of “kanjiclub”).

At the same time, even as I was shaking my head and mouthing the word “no” over and over, I didn’t feel the miserable deflation I did while watching the bad decisions play out in The Last Jedi. I’ve grown into a begrudging acceptance of that movie — and honestly, it’s a more ambitious and more daring movie than The Rise of Skywalker — but watching it felt like the cold touch of a Dementor was draining me of my renewed enthusiasm for Star Wars.

I think ultimately, JJ Abrams is too talented a filmmaker to make something I can’t enjoy in the moment. I’m hesitant to assign authorship to something as complex as a feature film — especially a blockbuster with as many invested parties as this one — to one person, but the constant through every JJ Abrams project I’ve seen is that they’re all full of charm, momentum, and seemingly boundless potential. Beautiful, charismatic people exchanging snappy dialogue while doing intriguing things. The stories rarely end on a satisfying note, though: starting with the mindset that the story can go anywhere and literally anything could happen means that all that potential energy gets used up quickly. Once it’s run out, the end result tends to either evaporate into meaninglessness, or land with a baffling thud.

Maybe it’s appropriate that watching The Rise of Skywalker felt to me like watching The Return of the Jedi. I left that movie feeling like they’d taken something great and somehow made it silly, overwrought, and nonsensical, to the point of making me wonder whether I’d “grown out” of the franchise altogether. But then I remembered how rad the speeder bikes were!

The Rise of Skywalker is like that, multiplied by ten. I started Return of the Jedi disappointed that they’d only made two movies and were already repeating themselves with Tatooine and another Death Star; this movie brings back a dead villain with no explanation, and then he also has 1000 Death Stars!

To be clear: I’m still 100% on board with the idea of bringing back the Emperor. He’s a great, over-the-top bad guy who could’ve served as the source of all evil across all nine movies. And I still think it could’ve worked, had it been made the driving force of the plot of the last movie, built up to a climactic reveal and final showdown, and tied into all of the events that led up to it. But here, it was introduced in the first line of the opening crawl. And of all the hundreds of questions that could come from that reveal, the least interesting one to explore was “Okay, how do we get there?” But that’s what they chose to focus on.

It’s so bafflingly arbitrary that it retroactively makes the rest of the final trilogy seem smaller and sillier. I’d been able to justify the First Order and Supreme Leader Snoke as building on the idea that The Return of the Jedi was a conclusive happy ending for the galaxy. I thought that The Last Jedi gave it weight by asserting that restoring the Old Republic without fixing its problems would just cause the cycle to continue indefinitely. Now, suddenly re-introducing Palpatine with little convincing explanation just makes it seem like they simply didn’t think you could tell a Star Wars story without bringing back the Empire and the Emperor. (I want to be charitable and use the common defense of repetition in the Star Wars movies by saying “it rhymes,” but there’s a part of me that only thinks this rhymes with “schmack of schmimagination.”)

I was left wondering whether the stable boy shown at the end of The Last Jedi now has to be revealed to be a long-lost grandson of Obi-Wan or something. Most disappointing is that Rey’s story has been robbed of all its potential energy built into the last two movies: the focus shifted from “who are you?” entirely to “who were your grandparents and the long line of now-dead heroes who are entirely responsible for your importance in this story?”

Ever since The Last Jedi came out, people have been calling it a case of filmmakers petulantly refusing to “yes, and…” each other. I never bought it, before. Despite my problems with the movie, The Last Jedi didn’t feel like it was arbitrarily throwing away ideas built up in The Force Awakens, so much as turning the story in a new direction to give a counterpoint to the previous two trilogies. But many of the changes in The Rise of Skywalker feel so arbitrary, even petty, that it just makes it feel like watching a bunch of preposterously rich people fighting over a box of Star Wars toys and refusing to share.

The Hollywood Reporter has an interview with co-writer Chris Terrio that makes me think it maybe wasn’t as clear-cut or arbitrary. (Or petty). Perhaps the major problems that I had with the story weren’t ones of intent, but of execution. They were trying to build on ideas from The Last Jedi, for the most part. But it sounds as if they had a very narrow interpretation of what The Last Jedi was trying to say, felt an obligation to honor a bunch of other people’s interpretation of the franchise (including George Lucas), and then had to deal with the thousands of things that always happen over the course of making any blockbuster, especially such a high-profile one that has to act as the conclusion of nine movies.

The biggest difference between my experience watching The Return of the Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker is that this time, I knew that Star Wars isn’t over. There’s no sense that it’s time for me to put away childish things, since I’ve got a huge media company pumping out millions of dollars worth of more stuff or me to enjoy at a steady clip.

If you’d told me that my favorite interpretation of Star Wars would be by the guy who was largely responsible for Swingers, I — well, to be honest, I probably would’ve said, “yeah, that checks out.” But it’s still great to see that Disney seems to have taken the best part of the MCU model — giving creators who grew up loving the material the chance and the resources to realize their own interpretation of it —and applied it to Star Wars. I don’t love the extended comedy beat at the beginning of the last episode of The Mandalorian, for instance, but I do love that it was instantly recognizable as Taika Waititi’s unique contribution.

That allows me to focus on The Rise of Skywalker’s speeder bike moments, the parts that it does well:

  • It was great that they put so much focus on having all the main characters going on an adventure together.
  • Although the story felt overstuffed with characters, I did like that their presence was kept character-driven — hinting at a stormtrooper revolt with Jannah, and the scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold story for Zorii Bliss, to emphasize the idea of “regular people” across the galaxy all standing up to the new Empire.
  • I loved the propulsive energy of the first act that kept things moving (even if I felt they were chasing after the wrong things).
  • I still love the inherent charisma of Daisy Ridley, who manages to make an unwaveringly good character still seem interesting and relatable.
  • I loved the scene with Han Solo and the clever repeat of “I know.”
  • I appreciated that they kept at least a trace of the “democratization of the Force” idea alive, with Finn’s growing awareness that he’s Force-sensitive.
  • I loved Adam Driver’s performance after his transformation back to Ben Solo — after two and a half movies with not much to work with other than “really intense,” he made that character so appealing, with relatively limited screen time and just an “ouch” and a perfectly-delivered, Han Solo-esque shrug.
  • And I loved that they did build on the idea of a unique connection between Rey and Ben, incorporating it into two key moments in the plot. It was a great counterpoint to the iconic moment in The Force Awakens in which she takes the light saber from him, to see her give it back.

Ultimately, I just can’t see the point in getting too upset about the disappointing parts of a movie that was this entertaining. That doesn’t mean I’ve “outgrown” Star Wars, or that I need to retroactively dismiss or downplay its importance to me — I’m still one of the guys who got engaged in Galaxy’s Edge this year, and I’m still considering the feasibility of having a wedding ceremony inside the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It just means we no longer have to settle for what one person’s interpretation of what Star Wars “is.”

While we’ve spent the last decade or so besieged by reboots and re-interpretations and re-imaginings, it’s often seemed like we’re in a cultural death spiral: everyone lacks imagination or ambition, and they’d rather play to nostalgia instead of creating something new. But there’s something uniquely wonderful about the thrill I felt seeing The Force Awakens, or even seeing The Mandalorian deliver a live-action version of a forgotten toy. Dismissing it as nothing more than nostalgia makes it sound completely selfish, instead of acknowledging that it’s more like a shared cultural moment. They’re not simply showing me the things that I used to love; they’re acknowledging “I understand why you love this, because I grew up loving it, too.”

There’s value in telling stories in these shared universes. And of course, there’s nothing stopping creators from using the money and/or industry clout from these shared universes and applying them to make their own original murder mysteries. I can put references to Harry Potter and Pulp Fiction into my opinions about a Star Wars movie, and we all get it because they’re all cultural touchstones that we share. Not narrow-minded fandoms that we’ve got exclusive ownership over. Take the parts of it that you love, don’t get too upset over the parts you don’t, and go on to enjoy — or make — new stories.

Back in middle school, I heard that Star Wars was planned as an epic trilogy of trilogies, and I tried to imagine all the different ways that such a long, huge story could play out. Now, though, limiting it to only nine stories seems remarkably unambitious.

A New Hope, or, We Would Like to See the Baby

Ending a week of Star Wars obsession by acknowledging that everything is going to be fine.

If there is one through-line to this week’s of posts, it’d be “Man, that guy sure does like to ramble on about Star Wars, doesn’t he?” But the second idea is that Star Wars has gotten huge, even by its own standards.

There’s just more Star Wars than there ever has been before, across the movies, toys, comics, books, TV series, and now theme parks. That means that it’s gotten way too big for any narrow definition for what it is or what feels “right” in an adaptation. People bring their own nostalgia and associations to it, have different ideas of what fits in with the tone, and have different ideas of what they want from it.

On the one hand, it means that it’s ridiculous for anyone to appoint themselves gatekeepers. I’m reluctant to put too much thought into the “anti-SJW” nonsense that surrounded The Last Jedi and the like, because I suspect much of it was manufactured controversy that just handed a microphone to a bunch of embittered, miserable people that’d be better off ignored. But it’s also a good reminder for all of us to be less possessive of it.

I was listening to the ForceCenter podcast talk about their hopes for the new movie, and their discussion put the whole thing into a good perspective: the growth of the franchise, especially with the potential for Disney+ series, doesn’t “dilute” the story, but expands it.

No part of it, even the main-line movies, has to be the definitive take on Star Wars, and if we don’t like one part, there’s a dozen more takes that we might like. I’m due to see The Rise of Skywalker tonight, and I’ve been bracing myself for either the rush of The Force Awakens or the (initial, at least) disappointment of The Last Jedi. But no matter what I end up thinking of it, I love The Mandalorian.

Every episode of that series has landed for me, not in spite of the simplicity of its storytelling but because of it. To me, it feels definitively, quintessentially, Star Wars, even though it’s slightly different in tone and scope from anything that’s come before. If somebody doesn’t like it, they don’t have to just wallow in their (horribly misguided) misery, but can find something else. There’s going to be at least one more TV series, and who knows how many movies.

The model of having a trilogy of mainline movies with “A Star Wars story” one-offs doesn’t seem to have worked like they wanted, so they’re not bound to that model. They’re not necessarily bound to the Marvel Cinematic Universe model, either. It seems like the only two overriding requirements are: 1) Does the Lucasfilm story group approve of it? and 2) Can Disney make money off of it?

They’ve already shown a commitment to letting creators bring their own voice to the material, which in my mind is still the key to the MCU’s success, more than any release schedule of solo movies + Avengers blockbusters. As long as it lets Jon Favreau bring his take on the material (like the MCU did with Iron Man, now that I think of it), I’m all in.

I still hope I enjoy The Rise of Skywalker, of course, but I don’t have to. For the first time in 40 years, I can go to a Star Wars movie reassured that even if I don’t like it, I can see a great TV show next week and ride a great theme park ride next month.

I’m trying to choose which cheesy reference to end on, and I decided on: Star Wars has become more powerful than I could possibly have imagined.

One Thing I Already Love About Rise of the Resistance

I have opinions about a ride I haven’t even been on yet.

To keep my Star Wars streak alive, I’m going to write about a new attraction in Galaxy’s Edge that I haven’t even been to yet. The Rise of the Resistance ride/attraction opened in Walt Disney World at the beginning of December, and it’s scheduled to open in Disneyland in mid-January 2020.

I’ve been seeing and hearing about this ride for years, getting the slow drip of information that Disney’s been releasing to keep everybody hyped for a time when their friends would arrive to find the new land fully operational. But I pledged to keep my knowledge to a high-level overview, so I’d have an idea of the overall beats but would remain unspoiled for all the details.

That pledge lasted for about 30 seconds once I learned that ride-through videos were available on YouTube. The first video made my soul ache. All I could do was lay my head on my desk and moan that I wouldn’t be able to ride it right now. At this point, I admit I might have overdone it. I caught myself at the end of a ride-through video, mouthing along with the characters’ final dialogue, like I do in the Haunted Mansion. (Silently, because I’m not a monster).

I’ve no doubt that seeing it in person will have an impact that videos can’t fully convey, but it’d still be good to keep myself from getting over-familiar. This post does have spoilers for Rise of the Resistance, so please don’t read it if you want to remain completely surprised.

From what I’ve seen, Rise of the Resistance is kind of “Imagineering’s Greatest Hits.” It looks as if they’ve taken some of the best gags, effects, storytelling techniques, and ride vehicle systems from all of their most successful attractions, then compiled them all to tell a new-sequel Star Wars story. My favorite thing I’ve seen is an example of that.

In the Tower of Terror ride — both the Walt Disney World original and the version that was in California Adventure — they do a masterful job of building anticipation for when the drop is about to happen. The original is still my favorite (and still one of my favorite things that Disney’s ever done), because it has that extended sequence of moving out into darkness, then seeing the star field converge into a point that becomes opening elevator doors.

But both versions have a gag where you see a window at the end of a corridor, and then the window shatters and drops. No matter how many times you ride, it gets a gut reaction, as you’re positive that the drop is going to happen right then.

At the end of Rise of the Resistance, your vehicle moves into an escape pod, and you can see other escape pods suspended beneath the Star Destroyer. Across the way, one of the claws holding the pods opens, and you see the pod suddenly drop away from the ship and fall towards the planet. And then, you’re left hanging for a few seconds, waiting for the drop that is about to come….

I love it because it proves that Imagineering didn’t just make a great ride with Tower of Terror, but that they understood exactly why it stood out from being just another drop ride. I think Disney is prone to overstate the role of “story” in their attractions in public-facing material, but the Tower of Terror rides are proof of how much of what defines a great Disney ride comes down not to ride technology but to techniques of storytelling. Place-setting, sound effects, music, pacing, and anticipation.

Seeing all the ride technology working in conjunction in Rise of the Resistance has my super-hyped for it as a theme park ride. Seeing one of my favorite moments in Tower of Terror echoed in the new attraction has me hyped for it as a new Disney experience. I’ve heard several people call the ride “next level” or describe it as the start of a new age of Disney attractions. I’m glad to see that it wasn’t just a case of adopting a new ride system (all our rides are variations on Soarin’ Over California now!), but that it’s a synthesis of all the things they’ve been excelling at for decades.

But Not For Me

Thoughts on living in a world where both The Force Awakens and Rogue One exist, and each has huge fans.

I might as well make this week all Star Wars, all the time, since it’s impossible to navigate the internet without seeing someone’s opinion of the new movie or the new TV show blasted in my face. A headline from Forbes in my RSS feed reads “The Rise of Skywalker Is The Worst Star Wars Movie Ever,” and it delights me to see Comic Book Guy getting work again. Plus thinking about spaceships and Force powers is more fun than thinking about any of the other stressors that adults are supposed to think about.

It’s an odd time to be an obsessive Star Wars fan. It’s not a case of being surprised by how big it’s gotten — anyone who was alive between 1977 and 1983 has seen first-hand how it got preposterously huge almost immediately — but in the ways that it’s gotten so big. It’s not just that it’s a huge cultural phenomenon that appeals to millions of people, but that it has to appeal to millions of people who don’t all want the same things from it.

The feeling is similar to that of seeing the long list of Kickstarter backers rolling in the credits of the Netflix Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot: the realization that this thing I’d always felt a personal connection with wasn’t actually targeted specifically at me.

Which sounds like the typical problem of a white middle-aged American man having to grapple with the idea that for the first time in his life, he has to come into contact with things that aren’t made specifically for him. And no doubt that’s a big part of it for me. But there’s a less selfish aspect to it, that’s tied into how I think about art and entertainment in general.

I’ve always thought that the main overriding goal of analyzing a piece of art was to evaluate its success based not just on what I want to get out of it, but based on how well it achieves what it sets out to do. I don’t believe it’s possible to get a truly objective review of anything, but I do think that we should at least be able to distinguish between things that work or don’t work for us, and things that succeed or fail at doing what they wanted to accomplish.

I always think back to a review of The Empire Strikes Back that I read in Starlog magazine, not long after the movie was released. Starlog was a niche magazine aimed directly at a particular kind of genre nerd, and the reviewer prefaced his article by saying that he knew that Star Wars was already a phenomenon, the movie was widely beloved, and he was offering his opinions to an audience that didn’t want to hear criticism of it. Even back then, before the internet and arguments about “SJWs” and who shot first, everybody understood that Star Wars attracted a passionate and not-always-socially-well-adjusted fandom.

But this review was formative for me as a nine- or ten-year-old, because it was the first time I’d seen a review of anything that I didn’t immediately classify as either dismissible trash, or an expression of joy and hype from someone who loved this stuff as much as I do. Honestly, it’s probably the first time it even occurred to me that you could examine Star Wars critically.

The key thing that stuck out to me was that the reviewer brought up points that hadn’t occurred to me while watching the movie six times in theaters, but were still valid criticisms. The space slug couldn’t exist because there was nothing in an asteroid field for it to eat, and the Millennium Falcon would take years to travel from one star system to another if it had a broken hyperdrive. Both are true, but they ultimately don’t matter, because the movies aren’t science fiction and don’t try to be.

But the reviewer also says that Yoda shouldn’t have pulled Luke’s X-Wing out of the swamp, because the entire purpose of the training wasn’t to teach Luke that the Force was powerful, but that he could be powerful. That’s a criticism that has always stuck with me, because it’s not based on sci-fi but on story. It’s evident that this was a moment that was intended for spectacle but doesn’t make sense in terms of character development.

Reading that review, and recognizing the distinction between science fiction and story, shaped how I think about every piece of art or entertainment worth thinking about. It’s also why I reject the typical line — Star Wars is for children, and we should put aside childish things — that’s been used as either a blanket defense or a lazy dismissal all the way back to 1977. It’s no doubt intended as a blistering take-down of adults like me, accusing us of refusing to engage with material that’s intellectually or artistically challenging, but in reality, it’s not just snobbish but stupid. It shows a refusal or inability to engage with a piece of art according to its own mission statement, instead of the viewer’s own biases. Which is something I’ve been able to do since I was 9. Suck on that, New Yorker.

That all was thrown into disarray when I saw The Force Awakens and then Rogue One. With The Force Awakens, I realized that it’s completely impossible for me to see it objectively. I’ve heard the criticisms of it, and I have several criticisms of my own, but they’re all but completely irrelevant. It’s not just that I disagree with the opinion that it’s just a retread of the original trilogy; I don’t care about that opinion at all. My enjoyment of that movie still bypasses any rational thought and goes directly to the portion of my brain that loves Star Wars.

Rogue One is the opposite. I still have criticisms of that movie that I think are objectively valid in terms of cinema and storytelling, but in the end my main complaint is that I just don’t think it’s what Star Wars is “about.”

At the same time, there are thousands of people who think Rogue One is exactly what Star Wars is about, and it’s everything they could want from a Star Wars movie. For me to point out all the ways I think it’s off tone is as irrelevant to them as it would be to point out to me that having a bunch of costumed adults standing around a screen talking about a “thermal oscillator” is clumsy and silly exposition.

So it’s distinctly odd cognitive dissonance to see a film that slavishly — and near-perfectly! — re-creates the exact look of the original Star Wars, right down to the sideburns, and still have to acknowledge that it just wasn’t made for me.

I’ve already written about going to Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, seeing myself surrounded by so many other middle-aged bearded nerds, and the sense of camaraderie that comes from knowing that at last I’m among My People. But there’s also the realization that many of the people there have an intensely personal connection to Star Wars (and Disneyland, for that matter) like I do, but are expecting to get something entirely different from what I’d recognize as being definitively Star Wars.

As someone who considers art and art interpretation as being fundamentally about communication, it’s kind of unsettling and isolating. I’ve long been able to recognize that even if something doesn’t appeal to me, I can at least engage with it based on what it’s trying to do. But what if I don’t understand what it’s trying to do?

I guess basically what I’m saying is that even if The Rise of Skywalker turns out to be a disappointment, we’ll still have The Mandalorian.